What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the University?

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Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we are asking philosophers of religion to tell us what philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university, considered either as a whole or through the lens of one or more university disciplines. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind.

Last year we witnessed a fabulous response to our challenge to look inwards and say what our field is and does, and we’ll soon present our analysis of those creative blog contributions. This year we are looking outwards as well as inwards, asking philosophers of religion to tell us how our field can impact the university or specific university disciplines.

For this theme, as for last year’s theme, we prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion in the modern university from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Gary Colwell on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

Gary Colwell is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Condordia University of Edmonton. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What is Philosophy of Religion? An Almost Serious Approach

The title “Philosophy of Religion” has three words which, when examined closely, will reveal the meaning of the discipline to which the whole title refers. (Or perhaps not, as the case may be.) Let us first inspect the word “philosophy” and then the word “religion”. In the end we shall see that the little word “of” holds the key to the most useful definition of the title; for whatever “philosophy” and “religion” mean, we know right off that the title refers to a philosophy that belongs to, or is applied to, religion.

What is philosophy? Philosophy is a rational discipline from which we learn more and more about less and less until someday we know everything about nothing. Or going the other way, we learn less and less about more and more until someday we know nothing about everything. The crucial question arising from these two definitions is itself philosophical in nature. Which should you rather know: everything about nothing or nothing about everything? For the benefit of the conscientious reader there is a right answer to that question.

I faintly hear someone saying, “get serious!” OK, I will, but you won’t like it. What I’m going to offer you is a functional and compendious definition of philosophy that is not entirely serviceable. But a word of caution before you proceed. You mustn’t say this definition out loud for fear of frightening your dog or alienating your other friends, though interjecting it skilfully into a cocktail conversation among the literati will garner you a heap of praise. Here goes: Philosophy is a rational discipline in which careful attention to detail, logical thinking and imagination are used to question, describe, analyse and speculate upon the fundamental assumptions of our beliefs about reality or some limited aspect of it, while striving to be clear, truthful, consistent and reasonable in its spoken, unspoken and written accounts. Admittedly, that was a bit long. But how to shorten it without amputating some of its vital limbs – that is a vexing question. We do need to retain the ideas of both analytic and synthetic thinking, with the understanding that when we engage in such thinking we are asking questions as well as making statements. Perhaps we could employ the term synalytic thinking. On second thought, that would only complicate the issue and raise unnecessary additional questions. Let us, then, tentatively settle upon the following: philosophy is a rational discipline in which analytic and synthetic thinking are trained upon the fundamental assumptions of some aspect of the world, in this case, religion. But now we must ask, what in the world is a religion?

Defining “religion” is like trying to wallpaper an alligator. On the one hand it is tempting to say simply that a religion is a system of beliefs with god at its apex. But this would make the definition too narrow. It would eliminate Theravada Buddhism, the non-dualistic schools of Hinduism such as Advaita Vedanta, and various kinds of polytheism. Many systems of belief that are labelled “religion” do not posit the existence of one transcendent being that is thought to be worthy of worship. On the other hand one might modify one of Tillich’s ideas and say that religion is simply a belief system that organizes life around that which ultimately concerns some group of people. This, however, would include practically everything upon which we may set our highest interest and around which we can organize our lives, making the definition too broad.

Why, we may rightly ask, are all these different systems of belief called “a religion”? It’s as though a giant strode about the earth collecting one after another of these belief systems in a huge basket: B was included because it was somewhat like A; C was included because it was somewhat like B; D was included because it was somewhat like C; and so on to n-1 and n. But when the giant was done he looked in his basket and discovered that n had almost nothing in common with A. Unwittingly he had gathered his religions according to a “family resemblance” method of collection. But why did he collect A in the first place? I don’t know. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time. Or perhaps it was because the first system of belief he came across was focused upon a transcendent source that provided meaning for his life. Whatever the reason, his first and last collections had much less in common than his first and second collections.

Is there anything we can do to build a definition of religion that is both accurate and serviceable? One approach might be to “bite the bullet”; in other words, to go for the generality and live with the consequences. We could say that a religion is a life-guiding system of belief that often but not always has a transcendent being at its apex. We do catch communism with such a wide net, but then calling that particular belief system a religion is hardly a new idea, though admittedly communists have never liked it very much.

To avoid alienating some of our ideological colleagues, therefore, we could use the opposite approach by defining “religion” specifically, even ostensively. It is that religion, X, that I mean when I say “philosophy of religion”. And we can substitute for X any religion that holds our interest. But now rather than trying to define the “philosophy of religion” simpliciter, we will need to adjust the explanandum to read, for example, “the philosophy of Christianity”. It could as well be “the philosophy of Islam”.

Still, something doesn’t feel quite right about my attempt to define “Philosophy of Religion”. I seem to have knotted my thinking into a mental cramp. I have accomplished this by trying to make my definition of philosophy of religion at one and the same time general and specific, as well as concise and expansive; and I also want it to be portable, so to speak. What to do? The thought now occurs to me that there is no need to satisfy all these characteristics at one stroke. For where is it written that we must say everything about something at once? So let’s make another run at the definition and do it in stages. I’ll call this effort an engaging definition, for it is supposed to engage the reader or hearer to ask successively more specific questions about previously more general answers. It will involve a dialogue that goes something like this:

Q – What is Philosophy of Religion?
A – It is a rational discipline in which philosophical thinking is applied to a religion.
The results may be spoken, unspoken or written.
Q – Why do you say rational discipline?
A – Well, because reason and the imagination are used exclusively to practice it.
There are many kinds of discipline or areas of accomplishment that invite mastery; not all of them are exclusively or predominantly rational. Taekwando is one example.
Q – But that still doesn’t explain what philosophical thinking is.
A – True, but just ask me and I’ll be glad to explain.
Q – All right, what is it?
A – I thought you’d never ask. It is the kind of thinking that strives to be clear, truthful, logical and consistent in its spoken, unspoken and written accounts. It is typically argumentative, seeking to create sound arguments for certain ideational positions, arguments with true premises and valid conclusions.
Q – But aren’t these just the features you should expect to find in the conscientiously practiced disciplines of chemistry, psychology or art history?
A – Yes, but with this very important difference: philosophical thinking is trained upon foundational assumptions. Philosophers work in the basements of other disciplines. You know, where it’s dark and the mushrooms grow.
Q – Do you mean to say that philosophical thinking never leads anyone to build superstructures? They never construct anything above the basements?
A – Goodness, No! Much of philosophy has been and continues to be speculative. Indeed, there have been some grand systems of thought built during the history of philosophy. Yet their construction was begun only after their builders had created or uncovered those foundational assumptions upon which they thought their systems could be solidly built. And the destruction of these same systems was brought about at the same fundamental level when deep cracks were discovered in the ideational foundations.
Q – You said that philosophical thinking is applied to a religion. What religion are you referring to?
A – Pick any one you like. Take Christianity, for example. Some of its foundational assumptions are: God exists; God is triune; God created the world; God is love; Jesus is divine; Jesus rose from the dead; miracles occur or have occurred; there is an afterlife; and so on. These are some of the assumptions without which the religion called Christianity wouldn’t be what it is. When philosophical thinking is trained upon these foundational assumptions those who are engaged in such thinking are doing philosophy of the Christian religion.
Q – Surely a definition of “religion” ought to include more than one religion.
A – Actually it does, at least at first approximation. But it includes all of them only indefinitely, using the article “a” in the phrase “philosophical thinking applied to a religion”. If you want greater specificity then simply ask, as you did earlier, “what religion are you referring to”, and I shall answer just as I did before, “pick any one you like”. I could just as well have referred to Judaism or Islam, and we could just as easily have trained our philosophical thinking upon the foundational assumptions of either of them.
Q – You said that one of the foundational assumptions of Christianity is that God exists. Don’t all the Abrahamic religions have this as one of their assumptions? As the most important of all their common assumptions, doesn’t it unite all of them? They all believe in a supreme being, don’t they?
A – Yes they do, but here’s the catch. The devil is in the details…Let me rephrase that. The specific natures of the supreme beings in whom they believe are radically different from one another.
Q – How could that be? What can be more than supreme?
A – It is not the degree of greatness that is at issue but rather the degree of generality and vagueness. Let me ask you a question: what do a chair, a lamp and a coffee table have in common?
Q – Well, they have many things in common. For one, they are all solid objects. As well, they are all artefacts. Most obviously, I guess, they are all pieces of furniture.
A – Good. Now, what if I told you that a chair, a lamp and a coffee table are basically the same kind of object because they share in common the property of being a piece of furniture.
Q – I’d say you were daffy.
A – Why would you say that?
Q – Because the word “furniture” is just a collecting term, one that categorizes and holds together a number of objects or even types of objects found in buildings of various kinds. It’s just a shorthand way of speaking of a number of things in a spatial collection. There isn’t something in addition to the three objects you named that we can refer to and identify as furniture. The word isn’t even a quality term like “red”.
A – Precisely! And it’s for the same reason that we cannot say that the three Abrahamic religions worship basically the same god because their gods share in common the property of being a supreme being. Just as a chair, a lamp and a coffee table are radically different pieces of furniture so the gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are radically different gods, even though all three gods are supreme beings in the minds of their respective devotees. You might observe that a coffee table is more similar to a chair than it is to a lamp but this greater similarity would not diminish one bit the radical differences that exist between all of them. Nor does the observation that the triune god of Christianity is more similar to the god of Judaism than he is to the god of Islam remove the profound and ineradicable differences that exist between all of them. And it’s the profound differences, Q, that prevent us from finding a definition of “religion” that one and the same time is both general and substantive. We can of course build a compendious definition of “religion”, just as we can of “philosophy”, but we lose in utility what we gain in substance. We end up with a long grocery list sprinkled with qualifications.
Q – Why then do so many intelligent people think that these religions worship basically the same god?
A – Because at a high enough level of abstraction any two things can be made to seem the same. What do a pickle and a paper clip have in common?
Q – They have many things in common. They are both visible substances; they are both oval shaped; their names both start with “p”.
A – Well done, Q! And you could also have added that neither of them can ride a bicycle. Or to put it more positively, they are both bicycularly challenged.
Q – That’s a very wispy similarity.
A – Yes, and so are the ones you mentioned, even if not quite so wispy. Saying that the two objects are “substances”, “oval shaped” and “have names beginning with ‘p’” tells me little about the essential nature of the objects you seek to compare.
Q – However that may be, the three monotheistic religions I mentioned have substantially more in common than a pickle and a paper clip have. All three religions have canonical scriptures, a revered prophet or prophets, a system of ethical teaching, a way of salvation, and so forth. There are many substantive similarities.
A – I’m afraid that I can’t entirely agree, Q. The wispiness index is still very high in the alleged similarities you mention. Certainly there is much substantive overlap between the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. Even so, the Hebrew Bible composes only about seventy-five percent of the Christian Bible. And the twenty-five percent difference, found in the New Testament, throws a new light on the whole. The Koran, being approximately the size of the New Testament, is radically different in content from both of them. Furthermore, if you look in detail at lives of the preeminent prophets of Islam and Christianity you will again see profound differences between them. And the same holds for their respective ways of salvation.
Q – But you’re emphasizing the differences and not saying much at all about the similarities.
P – That’s deliberate. And it’s because we are talking about the definition of “religion” in the title “Philosophy of Religion”. And I’m trying to point out the futility of attempting to form a general definition of “religion” that is both accurate and substantive. It’s the profound differences between the foundational elements of the religions that give those religions their distinctive character, and it’s these differences that frustrate any effort to form an inclusive definition that is both accurate and substantive. It is better not to try to include the foundational elements of all religions in the initial stage of an engaging definition, for it widens the field too much, causing one to make vague and implicitly untrue claims. Better, I think, to send the enquirer to a religion where first s/he can uncover its foundational assumptions and then apply philosophical thinking to them. After doing this with a number of religions there will no doubt be legitimate comparisons that can be made. But once again, it’s better not to attempt the comparisons at the initial stage of the engaging definition.
Q – If your approach is correct for defining “philosophy of religion”, why couldn’t it be used to define other sub-disciplines of philosophy? Words like “science” and “art” cause no end of definitional problems. Instead of thrashing about looking for the quintessential substance of all sciences, why not just define “philosophy of science” as “philosophical thinking applied to a science”, say, physics? You could then limit the scope of your investigation to “philosophical thinking applied to physics”. And you could do the same for art: philosophical thinking applied – not to art in general – but to an art, say, music; again limiting your investigation to “philosophical thinking applied to music”.
A – Very perceptive of you, Q! But our time is running out; we shall have to leave off discussing that until we meet again.
Q – Thank you, O sage of the northern prairie, for demuddifying my understanding.
A – Please, do not make fun of me. This is nearly serious business.

Conclusion: If you are asked what Philosophy of Religion is, don’t try to say everything at once. If you do you will find yourself either composing a very long definition that may be accurate but won’t be serviceable, or, settling for a shorter version that will quickly invite counter-examples. Begin instead with a short and grammatically correct definition that properly relates the two main ideas whose contents at first you keep indefinite. Then, with questions and answers, define the contents. You can begin by saying that it is a rational discipline in which philosophical thinking is applied to a religion. You can even leave off the first part, “a rational discipline in which”, if the context is agreeable to doing so. The short of it is this: “philosophical thinking applied to a religion”. If you have a penchant for parsimony you can shorten even further to “philosophical thinking about a religion”. You can then begin to fill it with accurate content by asking your audience, “What further questions do you have?”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thank you Steven Muir and Travis Dumsday for your helpful comments on the penultimate draft.

Raymond VanArragon on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Raymond VanArragon is Professor of Philosophy at Bethel University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question is, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” I propose to answer by considering, as examples of the modern university, schools like my own: Christian liberal arts universities where the vast majority of students consider religion to be of significant and even supreme importance.

Philosophy of religion can benefit these students in a variety of ways, and in so doing can help Christian universities better fulfill their missions. To see this, let’s consider how two opposing types of students attending such schools might be impacted by taking a course in philosophy of religion.

The first type of student is the dogmatist. This student has hard and fast religious views, perhaps produced through a sheltered upbringing or a recent and enthusiastic conversion, where answers to profound questions are already settled and people who disagree are seen as ignorant or evil or both.

The dogmatist enrolls at a Christian university with settled beliefs on such topics as the existence of God (obvious), why God allows evil (to make possible our exercise of free will), who gets to go to heaven (people who believe more or less as they do), and much else besides. The fundamental point of this life, our dogmatist contends, is to determine one’s place in the afterlife; and those who do not embrace the Christian faith are going to hell.

Now these issues are in fact much more complex than the dogmatist may think. And there is great benefit to recognizing the complexity! That’s where philosophy of religion comes in. Philosophy of religion can help dogmatists recognize problems with their own views and reasonable features of opposing ones. It can help them begin to see that religious questions run extraordinarily deep, and that pat answers don’t end the discussion.

Return to the sample beliefs I just mentioned. Through study of philosophy of religion a dogmatist may learn that it is not so obvious or easy to prove that God exists, and hence that failing to believe may not be irrational. Perhaps the pervasive horror of this world’s evils cannot be understood purely as God’s way of creating an environment appropriate to the exercise of free will. Perhaps the existence of multiple religions, with their rich traditions and devout representatives, should render us less certain of God’s judgment on them and more inclined to emphasize what all believers have in common, even if there remains much on which we disagree.

The second type of student, opposite the dogmatist, can be called a cynic. Cynics are dismissive of religious belief and tend to feel superior to those who aren’t. Most students do not arrive at Christian universities in this state – they’d likely not attend if they were. Instead, they move in this direction upon exposure to readings that are part of a liberal arts curriculum, some of which contain challenges to religious belief. And cynics may think that their benighted classmates are simply not getting it; they aren’t opening their minds; they don’t recognize their own ignorance.

Philosophy of religion can have a similar impact on cynics, but from another direction. It can reveal that religious beliefs have something positive to be said for them – that there are reasons to believe, reasons put forward by highly intelligent people who have been exposed to those very same challenges but have nonetheless kept the faith. Further, cynics may be prone to assuming that the essence of religious faith is captured by the beliefs and posture of the dogmatist; and philosophy of religion makes clear that faith can be much richer than that.

Now, not only can study of philosophy of religion impact the beliefs of dogmatists and cynics in the ways just suggested. Just as importantly, it can produce an informed and virtuous kind of humility in students on the extremes as well as all those in between. Let me explain.

A central feature of philosophy of religion, and of philosophy more generally, is that while many arguments in the field are strong (and of course many are weak), relatively few are utterly conclusive. That is to say, for nearly any argument (for or against God’s existence, for or against our having freewill, and so on), rejecting it does not mean that you are stupid, dishonest, or in some other way a bad person.

It’s easy to see how recognizing this can promote humility. Philosophy of religion need not lead students to give up all their religious beliefs, but it hopefully will change how they assess those beliefs and the people who reject them. The fact that, as you see it, your beliefs about religion are true does not stem from your being so much smarter or rational or morally upright than everyone who disagrees with you. There must be some other explanation. Students who maintain Christian belief – even after careful reflection on arguments for and against – might come to see their grasp of the truth as a gracious gift, and thus as grounds for humble service rather than for pride. It is no coincidence, I think, that this is what Christianity has taught all along.

I teach philosophy at Bethel University, a Christian university one of whose stated goals is to produce students who are “world-changers and reconcilers.” The statement continues: “As we humbly and honestly engage with our own biases and preconceptions, we grow closer to understanding Christ’s infinite love and selfless mission of redemption.” Many Christian universities make similar statements. They desire, in short, to cultivate religious faith of the best kind.

That goal is elusive. Religion can be the source of so many vices – I’ve only hinted at a few of them. But study of philosophy of religion can counteract those vices. It can temper both dogmatism and cynicism. It can replace aggressive disagreement and debate with humility, with respect, and with a focus on the pursuit of common goals.

That’s what philosophy of religion offers today’s Christian liberal arts universities, an offering that is as important now as it has ever been.

Andrew Gleeson on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Andrew Gleeson is Lecturer in Philosophy at Flinders University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When philosophy is defended as part of a humane, liberal education – I say when, for these days often it isn’t – this is seen as a matter of providing a simplified introduction to the research pursued at graduate and faculty level. Contemporary undergraduate teaching in non-professional subjects has increasingly become a primer to graduate study. Teachers have their eye less on the progress of intelligent students in general than on picking out budding researchers. This is not a general education as opposed to a specialized one, but an initiation into specialized inquiry, an initiation which casts the net wide – across the mass of undergraduates – in the hope of trolling the able few. It is a sort of sieve for finding academic philosophical talent. This is of a piece with the gradual marginalization in our culture of the ideal of the generally educated person, and of what was once called the ‘man-of-letters’, eclipsed by the rise of the cloistered specialist or expert.

This is not a system which serves most students well. Between the enthusiasts for specialized research at one pole, and the long-suffering student-victims (increasing with each year’s new intake) unable to cope with a university education of any sort at the other, there exists a large number of thoughtful students – no less intelligent than the first group – who are missing out on something valuable. I do not suggest they get nothing of value from their education – they may certainly get things of interest. They may become passionately interested in arguments for the existence of God – Intelligent Design for example – and continue, as best they can, to follow popular discussions of these for the rest of their lives. The problem is that discussions of these arguments by philosophers – not only in the era of mass institutionalized research-education, but most intensely and pervasively there – have become dissociated from their real roots in human life, in this case in religious life. The arguments have become dry, abstracted intellectual exercises – conundrums or puzzles – that employ only a limited, impersonal dimension of human intelligence: logic, rationality, argumentative dexterity, sensitivity to relevant factual (especially scientific) information. The teaching becomes a kind of squandered opportunity. We are teaching our students to be only lop-sided thinkers and lop-sided human beings.

I do not mean the students miss out on something practical, something they can apply in their subsequent professional lives (the rationale for teaching ethics or critical thinking to students in professional courses). I would call it something ‘spiritual’, if only over-use hadn’t made that word so pretentious. Examples best show what I mean. There is the way mainstream discussion of the idea that contingent being implies necessary being treats the notions of contingency and necessity exclusively as logical or scientific ones, and gives no role to contingency as a sense of the perishability of worldly things, in contrast to the eternity of God, as these are (for instance) sung by the psalmist (‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God’). Or consider the failure of so much discussion of the problem of evil to hold itself accountable to real life examples of evil, a failure theorized by the field as the distinction between the genuinely intellectual problem (the proper business of philosophers) and the personal or existential problem (the business of pastors, counselors and social reformers) and valorized as an ensign of its intellectual probity. (Philosophers discussing theodicy will often begin by quoting Dostoevsky, but typically as mere prettification which is quickly passed over to get on with the serious work of theory construction.) The point is not that these mainstream treatments of the philosophy of religion employ the proper methods for discovering the truth and achieving understanding, but in the class-room they should be complemented by a humanist uplift that is edifying for the students but strictly irrelevant to the genuinely cognitive core of the discipline. That idea simply recapitulates the impoverished conception of intellectual life that extols impersonal thought at the expense of personal responsiveness, and thereby misses its own ostensible subject-matter, a subject-matter that cannot be understood by the tools of the merely impersonal outlook (indispensable as they are). Philosophers proceeding in this way get God and Evil wrong. Perhaps most fundamentally the very methodological assumption of treating them as objects of speculation already distorts the understanding by directing attention on to the wrong intentional objects, or at least ones that are badly out of focus: the God whom the theodicist defends in his arguments during the day is not the same one he prays to at night. I can merely assert these strong claims here. I have argued for them in my book A Frightening Love: Recasting the Problem of Evil.

An alternative conception of philosophical thought about religion makes consideration of serious examples (of, say, evil, or the sense of life’s contingency, or the hidden-ness of God, or what it is to trust God) fundamental to philosophical practice. They need not come from the philosophers’ own lives, but philosophical consideration of them must be qua (thoughtful) human beings, not merely qua thinkers (philosophers) in the narrow sense of being responsive only to logic, rationality, etc. (It is admittedly a subtle question what marks thought as thought qua human being rather than qua philosopher, or qua literary critic, or qua historian, or …. My best quick stab is that it is thought presentable in any format – prose, poetry, painting, music – and without essential reference to any disciplinary canon or set of problems.) This casts philosophers in a quite different role in relation to the wider, non-specialist world than they standardly take themselves to have. The standard role assumes that philosophy can prove or disprove God, or make God more or less likely, and thus the point and rationality of religious practice in the world at large is made hostage to the results of highly specialized inquiry. I am suggesting things should be the other way round: that the philosophers should be learning from the world outside the seminar room. The students in that seminar room are usually young, and only just learning about both the academic world and the wider one. If the former condescends to the latter, and even dismisses it, we run the risk of disenfranchising them from both.

Susanna L. Goodin on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”


Susann L. Goodin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Wyoming. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Religion in general provides guidance on what is important, how to live and, in some cases, what to think about almost every aspect of life. By being so ingrained and so long-standing, religious beliefs are very influential, but similarly, by being so ingrained and long-standing religious beliefs are largely resistant to revision. Humans have a tendency to accept the beliefs held by those around them and by those in positions of authority over them. And all of that makes religious beliefs a very useful tool of social control.

When beliefs are accepted unthinkingly, then others have a greater opportunity to exert control over what you think – and what you do. If one comes to have a nuanced understanding of their religious beliefs, they stand a much better chance of seeing whether their religion does or does not mandate a stand on a particular social issue. A true understanding of the foundation behind religious claims will limit the use by others of one’s religion to support any of a number of particular political and social views. Ideally, having a deeper understanding of what various religious claims mean (and don’t mean) will limit the ability to inject social and personal prejudices and biases into the religious teachings, thus limiting the use of the religion to cement those views into social norms and policies.

When you learn to unpack your beliefs for yourself, the power of others to control what you think and do is greatly, even if not totally, diminished.

Philosophy in general offers clarity, insight, and a way to step away from dogmatic acceptance of concepts that are often nothing more than oft-repeated phrases with no real understanding of them. To be able to show students how to achieve clarity, insight, and a way to step away from dogmatically-held beliefs regarding something as fundamental to one’s religious beliefs is to give students a self-reflective control over their beliefs, and thus over their lives. Also, humility about what one knows and what one can know, acquired through rigorous logical analysis that results in a deeper understanding about the beliefs one holds, promotes a way to step away from fundamentalism (religious or otherwise)—which is a very good thing.

To think critically is to seek out assumptions and acquire clarity over the unstated background beliefs, those foundations that are necessary for your belief to stand but are largely unrealized and thus unquestioned. Critical analysis places under review the assumptions behind our beliefs and allows for possible revision or elimination. Critical analysis also reveals the consequences of our beliefs and causes us reevaluate whether we wish to continue holding a belief at that cost. Critical analysis reveals internal contradictions among the beliefs held. Fuzzy beliefs get refined (if possible), and if not possible, then are either discarded or are held but with an awareness of the limitations inherent in such beliefs.

To learn how to engage in critical analysis of religion is to see that religious beliefs can be explored with the goal of understanding and evaluating absent a goal of winning, persuading, renouncing or denouncing. The goal is to see what is entailed in continuing to hold onto an oft-repeated belief. One might say that a philosophy of religion class makes one earn the right to hold a specific religious belief.

Philosophy of religion teaches, via repeated demonstrations regarding the analysis of divine attributes or centuries old proofs for the existence of the traditional Western classical conception of God or the implications of the claim that a miracle occurred, how to engage in rigorous critical thinking. Teaching students how to think about big important issues in one sphere will allow them to begin to think about important issues in other spheres.

Philosophy of religion courses show that it is okay to question religious beliefs and show how to do it well.

By having such courses in the curriculum, U.S. universities show support for a critical and questioning approach to religious beliefs. And by showing that one can do this with beliefs as important and fundamental as religious beliefs opens up the possibility of treating all of one’s beliefs in the same way.

For U.S. to offer such courses is to reject an endorsement for an unthinking populace that simply accepts what it is told. When religious beliefs are put in the hands of the individual and the individual is educated in how to think critically about those beliefs, the possibility of a fundamentalist hold is dramatically weakened and the possibility of religion being used to control the populace or any portion of the populace is significantly lessened.

Elizabeth Burns on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Elizabeth Burns is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Religion is an important cultural phenomenon. A recent study (‘The Global Religious Landscape’, The Pew Research Center, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/ ) claimed that, of the world’s 7 billion people, about 5.8 billion of them are religious believers of some kind. This figure includes 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, a billion Hindus, and about 500 million Buddhists. Religious beliefs are not just abstract ideas; they have a major impact, both positive and negative, on individuals and societies throughout the world. They can address fundamental human concerns, offering meaning and purpose and helping believers to cope with suffering and the inevitability of death. They are also a source of values which influence the behaviour of individuals and shape societies, and they can form the focus of caring communities of like-minded believers. Regrettably, they can also be a source of conflict which can lead, in some cases, to terrorist activity and/or warfare. It is therefore important that as many people as possible are able to contribute thoughtfully to discussion about the meaning, truth, and practical application of religious beliefs. As the author of Ecclesiasticus said, many centuries ago: “Discussion is the beginning of every work, and counsel precedes every undertaking. The mind is the root of all conduct” (Sirach 37: 16-17). It is this discussion which the study of philosophy of religion seeks to facilitate.

Philosophers of religion aim to help both individuals and societies consider what it makes sense to say about religious beliefs, and whether or not there might be any evidence for their truth – or, indeed, falsity. If we talk nonsense about our beliefs, whatever they might be, or if we are unable to respond to common objections, or ignore evidence which suggests that they might be false, our beliefs are vulnerable and therefore less likely to provide the benefits set out in the paragraph above. More seriously, if our beliefs shape our behaviour and our societies, and those beliefs turn out to be mistaken, the consequences may be very harmful for both individuals and societies.

Philosophers of religion therefore study different ways of understanding divinity and its attributes, and various arguments both for and against its existence. Questions about the  apparent conflict between belief in a divinity which is both all-powerful and good and the existence of evil and suffering are, perhaps, some of the most commonly discussed in philosophy of religion, both because the prevalence of suffering constitutes one of the most significant drivers for finding “believable” religious beliefs, but also because this apparent conflict is one of the most frequently-cited reasons for the rejection of religious belief and the development of alternative, humanist world-views.

Although philosophy of religion cannot provide a set of conclusive answers to life’s fundamental questions, it can help us to choose between possible answers, and, perhaps, to rule out those which are the most likely to be mistaken, including the superstitious or the fanatical. Lack of ability to provide “right” answers may even be a blessing in disguise, since preserving the possibility that we could be mistaken might help us to prevent the horrors and terrors which are sometimes associated with fundamentalist forms of religious belief. If philosophy of religion is able to contribute to a developing international awareness of the shaky ground upon which religious fanatics stand it can make an important contribution to the advancement of global security. We need enough certainty to create meaningful lives, but enough doubt to preserve the possibility that there might be better answers to life’s fundamental questions, the search for which is unceasing.

It is not only lack of certainty which can be seen as an important aid in the prevention of religious fanaticism and terrorism, however; philosophy of religion can also enhance dialogue between the world’s religions by focusing both on features that are common to more than one religion (such as divine attributes) and on features which are distinctive (such as beliefs about what happens to us when we die). In the first case, realisation that other religions and world-views contain beliefs which are similar to our own can diminish the sense of “otherness” and “alienation” which we might experience with respect to those religions and world-views. In the second, the opportunity to consider the reasons which underpin religious beliefs which differ from our own can help to foster relationships with those of different faiths and none, when it might otherwise have been tempting to dismiss their beliefs as groundless.

Philosophy of religion is also interdisciplinary. It requires or teaches a basic understanding of a range of key sub-disciplines of philosophy – epistemology, methodology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of mind, for example. It requires or teaches an adequate understanding of key beliefs from the world’s major religions, since we cannot ask philosophical questions concerning beliefs about which we lack knowledge and understanding, and a knowledge of key features of religious belief is important for those who wish to understand other humanities subjects such as literature in its various forms, the visual arts, music, and so on. And, since philosophers of religion are concerned with what might reasonably be said about the divine, the insights of philosophy of religion also have the potential to contribute to the study and development of religious liturgy – the words which are offered to religious believers for use in their individual and communal religious practice.

Although it is possible to believe something without that belief informing our action, action is not possible unless it is informed by belief. And, while it is possible for good actions to arise from bad beliefs – for example, we might help a person in distress because we think that we will suffer eternal torment in hell if we fail to do so, even if there is no evidence for such a belief and, for others at least, it has very unpleasant consequences – it is more likely that good actions will arise from good beliefs. Through ongoing debate in universities, in the internationally-disseminated publications which arise from and inform that debate, and from the impact of those who are thereby well-informed upon society more generally, philosophy of religion helps to increase our stock of possible good beliefs while diminishing the plausibility of bad ones in the hope that, together, humankind will continue to work towards the creation of a better world for all of its inhabitants.

Anna Djintcharadze on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Anna Djintcharadze specializes in history and philosophy of the religious mind. Her main research interests are Neoplatonism, medieval reception of Neoplatonic heritage, modern philosophy, history of scientific ideas, and existentialism. She has taught a variety of subjects at Boston College, the Institut de Formation Théologique de Montréal, the Saba Orbeliani Institute for Philosophy in Georgia, and the Dominican University College in Ottawa. She is currently working on a book project, entitled:”God or Nature? An attempt of Anthropocentric Theodicy”. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I think the spontaneous answer would be – justify the university’s claim of universality.

The university’s many disciplines are the reflection of man’s mental and spiritual activity. Philosophy, however, is a reflexive activity on all these reflections, which is the reason why it transcends them all and we can have a philosophy of health, of art, of economics, etc. The university thus draws its universal character from the humanistic idea of being an anthropologically holistic enterprise – of yielding a portrait of the best of contemporary man, both factual and ideal.

Religion, whether it is understood as a culturally crucial institution, recognized by a given society as a mediating instance between the transcendent world and immanent society, or as a personally chosen stance vis-à-vis the transcendent, is as much an inalienable and organically produced instance of what it means to be human, as is the practice of mathematics, the writing of poetry, or the building of skyscrapers. Religion is a formally necessary ingredient of humanness, since it has been organically generated by humans throughout history. Hence, not only should religion occupy an equal status among the other disciplines philosophically reflected upon at a university, but it should be recognised as one of the most proper and necessary human activities. For it is not reason that distinguishes humans from animals, but spirituality; while beavers possess enough of intellect to build dams, spiders display calculative powers to weave intricate patterns, ants build highly structured communities, etc., none of the animals has ever produced a religion. Thus, homo religiosus is a label that captures what is distinctively human better than the term homo sapiens. Moreover, since in order to give justice to man one must describe him in a truly universal manner, the university’s anthropocentric curriculum should be crowned with the study of man’s religious dimension.

One certainly could retort that the human unique capacity to produce religion is not qualitatively different from animals, because it is due exclusively to man’s quantitatively greater rational powers, so the concept of God would be the result of greater rationality that also makes fantasies possible. However, it is impossible to defend the claim, because, although religion always receives a certain rational formalisation, the source of its very existence is not in rational discourse; no convinced religious person subscribes to his/her religion for the sake of mere rational schemes derived from unconditional premises that describe that religion. Whilst the question “How and why I am/I am not religious” is a rational, reflexively discursive question about one’s state of mind, the very formal presence of the capacity to be or not to be consciously religious definitely transcends mere reason, since the fact of being/not being religious is not the result of a choice based on merely rational conclusions. This is so because the essence of religion, unlike the essence of analytic philosophy or classical metaphysics, is never to be “about” something, but to be “that” very something; religion is never a ratio, a bit describing the whole — it wants to be the whole itself, its experiential reality, and so the primordial nature of its self-understanding is to go beyond both immanent experience and formal discourse towards a transcendent experience. When such an experience, real or claimed, receives later a logical description and justification, this discourse is always a secondary, conditional part of the religious phenomenon as such. Hence, man can rationally accept or reject the reality and possibility of a transcendent experience, but this rational choice is not the effect of a rational cause: it is rather the result of a qualitatively different order. In fact, no one accepts or rejects transcendent experience on the ground of mere logical consistency or non-consistency of the concept, but on the ground of having or not having transcendent experience(s).

This moves us closer to a definition of man as “self-transcendence”. As long as humanity is alive, it will strive to go beyond itself and to look for transcendent experiences, be it in lofty forms, such as mental and artistic creativity, or in other forms that go beyond what is strictly natural to being “human”. Especially in our times we notice a frantic drive towards everything that is trans-…. The ethics of transgression, by the way, is another abstruse form of the quest of self-transcendence.  This means that even when – and perhaps especially when – existing religion is not capable of satisfying such a going beyond oneself into the divine, man will necessarily find other outlets to outdo himself and in this sense to be religious – whether in a cyborg, or even in suicide. Thus, religion is an inescapable human reality.

Now, what about the philosophical reason that is to deal with religion? It seems that it also needs a transcendent definition, if it wants to deal with religious content. Semyon Frank – a Russian 20th century thinker has defined reason as “a rational transcendence of rational thought”. And it remains true that in order to reinvent a whole man, it is reason that urgently needs to acquire the capacity of self-transcendence, and go beyond the safe and boring petty-bourgeois soul of formal thought. Otherwise, it risks self-transcendence into folly. Modern thought has inherited a less than self-evident division between faith (religion, transcendent experience) and reason that itself is a fruit of a reductionist view of man – a peculiar reduction indeed, since aiming at extolling both reason and faith, it leaves both humiliated: reason is broken and impoverished, because it is denied the capacity of anything that goes beyond formal, calculative functions; and faith (religion as transcendent experience) is broken too, because reason is excluded as a witness of the content of faith, leaving faith  withou any rational approval. The question then is: with such a schizophrenic self-image, how do we hope to be able to be true to ourselves in a universal way? The healing of this self-image is the main challenge that the university agenda should take up if universality is what it claims to offer. Might the philosophy of religious experience contribute to activating reason’s self-transcending possibilities?

Today we live amidst a plethora of religions and spiritualities. Each arises from a particular transcendent experience which finds formalization in a particular rationality that, being borne by experience, provides the latter with logical justification. Since it is eventually this justification that conditions humans to act in very different and contradictory ways, forming different and contradictory cultures, we need to take ourselves seriously as religious-capable subjects   and mend the rend between reason and religion. We must accept that it is not “pure” reason that drives man’s decisions, such reason being an empty formal tool, but a live (or claimed) content of self-transcending experiences to which reason testifies and in which it participates. Kant was more than right when he said that concepts are empty without experience and experience is blind without concepts; only, we must go beyond Kant and add “transcendent” to “experience”.

If modern university curricula are not able to recognize spiritual, religious phenomena as core driving forces behind humanity’s self-image, then it’s the modern university that needs to answer the question asked here, namely: what does the modern university offer to the world? What do humanities offer to humanity and humanness? A broken reflection of man, apetty cog, several thousand times less powerful than a computer, who vainly tries to escape himself in sheer self-dislike? Man is there for the magnificent and for the dauntlessly grand, so the agenda of holistic anthropocentrism is the university’s first and foremost function; if thinking “humpty-dumpties” are not able to put themselves together again – if the prejudicial reductionism of reason versus faith  continues to reign in the university’s mental culture and yield its bitter fruits, then the university’s pretense to promote human dignity, true self-knowledge, creative joy, and self-betterment, will be a pretentiously vain and damaging pursuit.

Lynne Rudder Baker on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Lynne Rudder Baker is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.  

Many, if not most, university students are woefully ignorant of the role of religion in the history of civilizations–their own and others. Judaism and Christianity have helped shape Western values, and Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and others have shaped values in Eastern and Middle-Eastern countries.  Intractable religious conflicts in Africa—the legacy of colonialism—are still occurring.  The religions of the world influence what happens today; so it behooves university students to learn about them. 

Granted, I didn’t teach philosophy of religion in relation to history or culture. Analytic philosophers, myself included, teach philosophy of religion as a series of logical puzzle cases: Can God make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?  Or perhaps as religious epistemology: is there any good reason to believe in a deity? Or perhaps as genealogy: Why did religion (considered generically) arise?  I now see these approaches, which are followed by many analytic philosophers, as misleadingly reductive. 

Although I would not teach philosophy of religion by draining the life and particularity out of religions, I do recognize that there is a distinctively philosophical place for religions in the university curriculum–a place that would benefit students raised in a consumerist culture that leaves people with the emptiness of routine work and the endless quest for diversion. (Pascal was on the mark when he excoriated lives focused on diversion.)

Philosophy of religion could play a signal role in helping university students understand reality as a domain-independent whole: What difference would it make if there is any reality beyond the spacetime universe, beyond the particular domains of the sciences—any reality that comprehends the cosmos as a whole? The aim of philosophy of religion could be to bring reflection to unreflective ideas of reality, and to teach students to be still and to reflect on their own lives. We are all going to die–and that includes you and me; what bearing does that fact have on how we live? 

Philosophers notoriously (and perhaps uniquely) use arguments to talk about values. The matter of what values are worth having is certainly subject to argument. Religions can and have been used to oppress people, but they also can liberate people: U.S slavery and abolition are both defended on religious grounds, some of which can be shown to be fallacious. For example, consider the pro-slavery argument that Africans benefit from slavery, because they are like children and cannot take care of themselves on their own. The argument for this claim circularly uses the claim itself to justify putting in place the very infantilizing conditions that make self-governance impossible.

Religion, in the words of Paul Tillich, studies ultimacy. A philosophy of religion course may well study ultimate values (and arguments for and against adopting various ones of them). For example, we may consider the cosmos as an ordered whole, not as an accidental mishmash of events. Of course, there are scientific laws; in order to conceive of the universe as an ordered whole, both Aquinas and Kant (albeit on different grounds), thought that the idea of God is necessary. The idea of something beyond our spacetime world is not a dogma, but it is something well worth considering.

If we do conceive of the cosmos as an ordered whole, it can be argued that we have resulting obligations to the environment and to future generations; global questions about human beings as such; and about animals as such. We should also consider anti-human implications of advances in technology. These matters are illuminated by arguments in the philosophy of religion.

Another deep question arising from thinking about the world as a whole is this:  What is natural–as opposed to artificial or cultural? What is it to act according to one’s nature? Do human beings have a natural or divine right to be delivered from murderous harm? What is the purpose of government? Is there a common good? What is the relation between fact and value? (Hume has held the stage on this question far too long.) 

Philosophy of religion may ask metaphysical questions that blossom out into social, political and ethical  questions. What is justice? If others are starving, does justice require depriving oneself to the point of self-harm? Philosophy of religion may also argue about war and its justification, and poverty and its alleviation. Are hierarchies justifiable? Even though such questions may be answered with no appeal to religion, it seems arbitrary—given the influence of religions in the world—to rule out religions as contributing to answering them.

Religions have concerned themselves with daily living–food, clothing, sexuality, domestic life. Philosophy of religion can examine the arguments for and against positions taken by religions on these matters.

The philosophy of religion stubbornly explores the Big Questions: Does life have purpose beyond individual choice? Are living people responsible for the evil of the past? Why can we not learn from the past? Is there any remedy?

Traditionally, much of philosophy of religion has concerned itself with the existence of God, but in truth, the area is much broader and encompasses almost all domain-independent questions. Philosophy of religions ranges over all the domains of the particular sciences. It is one of the highest achievements of the human intellect to think about these matters. As ancients Greeks said, we throw away these questions to our peril.

Broadening one’s perspective in light of these questions of what is ultimate is what university education is all about. So, I think that philosophy of religion that attends to such questions undoubtedly has a place in the university curriculum.

Stewart Goetz on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

stewart-goetzStewart Goetz is Professor of Philosophy at Ursinus College. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

To the extent that the modern university is interested in the most basic questions of human existence, it should include among its disciplines the philosophy of religion, because the philosophy of religion provides an extremely relevant intellectual forum for raising and addressing these fundamental questions in a thoughtful way.  For example, of great interest to most people is the topic commonly referred to as “the meaning of life.”  In the minds of many people, to ask “What is the meaning of life?” is to ask “What is the purpose of life?”  And the idea of the purpose of life suggests to these individuals the idea of a creator who made them for that purpose.  The response of many, if not the majority, in the modern university is “But there can be purposes in life without a purpose of life!”  Perhaps so, but the important point is that a discussion has been opened that is naturally situated within the philosophy of religion.

A discussion has been opened, but connections with other philosophical topics exist to be explored.  Foremost among them is the idea of what counts as a legitimate explanation.  The claim that there can be purposes in life without a purpose of life assumes that there can be purposeful explanations.  What makes this assumption particularly fascinating in the present context is that most of those who argue for the possibility of purposes in life without a purpose of life are naturalists, and naturalists more often than not define themselves as those who look to modern science for guidance in thinking philosophically about issues.  This raises the question “What is science?”, to which the answer, more often than not, is something like “the discipline that insists on ultimately explaining things without any appeal to the concept of a purpose.”  But if this is the gold standard for explanation, then presumably there cannot be any irreducible purposes in life, let alone a purpose of life.

Naturalists are typically Darwinians who think not only that all explanations must ultimately be purposeless in nature but also that the paradigm for purposeless explanations are adaptive explanations found in biology: e.g., the explanation of X’s existence is that caused but purposeless changes resulted in X and X, under the prevailing circumstances, proved advantageous for survival and reproduction.  And once again we are back into the thicket of the philosophy of religion.  Because like it or not (and most naturalists do not like it), many, many people have religious beliefs.  Why so?  Naturalists maintain that it must be because those beliefs proved to be adaptive.  Or if they were not adaptive, then they must be the effects of something else that did prove adaptive.  And the truth of these adaptive beliefs?  There is no reason to think beliefs that turn out to be adaptive need to be true, because it is having the belief, not its truth, which is adaptive.  This will come as news to many religious believers.  They think, apparently wrongly, that they have reasons which explain their religious belief (leaving aside whether those reasons are good or bad).   Not surprisingly, the more sophisticated religious believer will wonder about the explanation of the naturalist’s belief in naturalism and Darwinism.  Presumably, the naturalist believes these things because believing them proved to be adaptive.  But those beliefs, too, could be adaptive without being true.  The philosophy of religion quickly proves to be home to some very interesting philosophical discussions.

Someone might interject that the discussion so far has assumed that what needs to be explained is religious belief.  But religion is about more than, or other something other than, belief.  Many think religion is about communal activity (e.g., taking care of each other, worship).  Belief is at best secondary.  But even under this understanding of religion, the question of what explains the communal activity must be answered.  Of course, the naturalist will insist the correct explanation of it is purposeless and adaptive in nature.  And the more sophisticated religious person will now want to know what explains the communal activity of scientists (because surely scientists form their own community as much as religious persons do).  Presumably, it, too, must be explained in purposeless, adaptive terms.

This discussion of the importance of the philosophy religion for the modern university began with a question about the meaning of life and an answer in terms of a purpose of life.  But there are other ways to understand the question “What is the meaning of life?”  One that is reasonable is “What, if anything, makes life worth living?”  And, once again, this is a question very much at home within the philosophy of religion.  It is a question naturally answered in terms of something of value, whether it be a moral virtue or virtues, worship, or even pleasure.  An issue going back at least to Plato’s Euthyphro is whether something has its value intrinsically or instead gets it from a decision or command of the gods.  And there is the broader issue of whether the existence of values makes more sense within a religious framework, or whether it is equally or more sensible within, say, a naturalist framework.

With mention of things making sense, there arises yet another way of understanding the question “What is the meaning of life?”, which is “What, if any, way is the best way to make sense of things?” Does the best way of making sense of things require an afterlife?  Does it require a soul?  And these are obviously questions that are appropriately addressed within the philosophy of religion.  But perhaps it is best to close with a slightly different question: “Does an education provided by the modern university make much, if any, sense without inclusion of the philosophy of religion?”  It seems it does not, because to exclude the philosophy of religion is to exclude the deepest concerns of human beings.  And if we are going to exclude these from the modern university, why have an educational system at the university level at all?

Paul Russell on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

paul-russell-2Paul Russell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia and the University of Gothenburg. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

This question may be considered in two parts; the first concerns the point of studying the philosophy of religion, and the second concerns its specific relevance to the modern university. Answering the first part of this question provides us with much of the answer to the second part. From the perspective of those who view religious claims and practices as either true and justified or, at least, as possibly true and justified (i.e. theists and agnostics) there are some obvious and easy answers to this question. The philosophy of religion serves to investigate the nature and grounds of religious beliefs and practices and to articulate and justify them to those who are so committed or are still considering them. However, from the perspective of those who operate from a more sceptical or even hostile stance (i.e. atheists or the irreligious) the answers are not so evident or straightforward.

For some, the philosophy of religion, as distinct from historical and anthropological investigations of religion, should be dismissed as nothing better than a waste of our intellectual time and energy, since it is devoted to the examination and evaluation of a set of arguments and claims that have already been adequately discredited and refuted. From this perspective, devoting further resources of any kind to the philosophy of religion is, at best, useless and redundant and, at worst, gives credibility to a system of ideas and doctrines that prop up pernicious practices and corrupt institutions. Investigations and studies of this kind, it may be said, are no more valuable and worthwhile than work devoted to discrediting astrology, the existence of ghosts, augury, or any number of other superstitious beliefs and practices. There are certainly many philosophers – including some influential philosophers – who take a view of this general kind. I think, however, that this attitude to the philosophy of religion is mistaken, or at least too sweeping, even for those who find the major forms of religion both intellectually suspect and ethically troubling.

Why, then, should atheists take the philosophy of religion seriously? There are, I believe, a number of considerations that matter here and identifying them depends on drawing several important distinctions (which philosophers are especially well placed to draw). First, we need to distinguish the importance and interest of the questions being asked from the quality or credibility of the answers that have been provided for them. Religions and religious philosophers have raised a wide range of deeply important and difficult questions that demand careful consideration and examination by everyone, including those who may reject orthodox religious or theistic answers to them. Moreover, with regard to the (wide) range of religious answers and proposals that are on offer, we need to carefully separate and distinguish those that really do not merit our attention from those that do. Furthermore, in a number of cases some religious arguments and proposals that have been found wanting have been further refined and developed in interesting and challenging ways. These refinements make clear that any thinker, who is suitably serious, intellectually modest, and genuinely open-minded, must retain an ongoing engagement with these arguments, allowing for the possibility that they may contain important truths or insights into the human condition.

Where we draw this line is, of course, a matter of judgment and there is no sharp or precise boundary to follow. There is, nevertheless, a clear difference to be made between spending time refuting, for example, the claims of Scientology and responding to problems of cosmology, as this relates to the source and origins of the order, structure and meaning that we find in the world. No one should wrap all these matters up into one large bag and toss it all away. Indeed, it is one of the concerns and aims of the philosophy of religion to help guide us on such matters and to enable us to sift through this complex varied material, with a view to separating out what does and does not merit serious consideration and further philosophical attention. Beyond all this, the sensible atheist will recognize that the boundary between the philosophy of religion and other areas of philosophical concern (e.g. “existential” problems relating to the human condition and human predicament) is not clearly demarcated and is easily crossed. Here the history of philosophy has a particularly important role to play in helping us to understand ourselves and the way we continue to think about and address these overlapping and constantly evolving set of problems.

Another aspect of the philosophy of religion of particular concern to atheists and the irreligious, related to the investigations described above, is focused on asking (challenging and troubling) questions about the causes and effects of religion. These are questions that need to be asked by anyone who recognizes that religion, whatever its credentials or merits may be, is of great consequence in the world – something that is undeniable from any point of view. The way that we frame and interpret these questions about the causes and effects of religion itself requires philosophical skill and judgment, even when the answers we seek depend on methods and techniques of another kind. These are all matters that both the religious and irreligious have a common or shared interest in whether their answers converge or conflict. The dialogue and debate involved is equally important and essential to the integrity and credibility of both parties concerned.

Finally, I take it that it is a central obligation of all universities to provide its members, and society more generally, with the opportunity and resources to investigate and examine the most basic and fundamental features of the universe and our human predicament and place within it. All such investigations generate philosophical puzzles and issues about their own methods and assumptions. For this reason, philosophy has traditionally enjoyed, as it still does, a central place at the heart of university education. For reasons I have explained above, the religious and irreligious alike must recognize the importance and value of the philosophy of religion as a core part or aspect of philosophy itself. These are issues of the most profound and inescapable theoretical and practical importance for human life, and they require the sort of exact and precise articulation that a philosophical education should provide. It is, therefore, a matter of some concern that contemporary academic philosophy, as studied in most Western universities, has rather marginalized the philosophy of religion and gives much more prestige and prominence to areas of study that are more arcane, dry and remote in nature. This is not so much a sign that either philosophy or human knowledge has “progressed” or “advanced” beyond religion, as it is that a great deal of philosophy, as studied and taught in the modern university, has become excessively narrow, over-professionalized and detached from the very sort of fundamental concerns and problems that bring most students and readers to the study of philosophy in the first place.

Jin Y. Park on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jin-y-parkJin Y. Park is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University. We invited her to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

A rationalist approach to religion marked the beginning of the field of the philosophy of religion. Rene Descartes (1596–1650) claimed that it is the work of philosophers rather than theologians to prove the existence of God. Hegel (1770–1831) began lecturing on the philosophy of religion in 1821 and did so again in 1824, 1827, and 1831. He offered a grand scheme of the evolution of religions, assigning Asian religions to a primitive stage and Christianity to the culminating stage of that evolution. Regarding religious phenomena as “homogeneous,” he did not consider the possibility that different notions of the ultimate being or of humanity’s relationship to it are an expression, not of a religion’s relative primitiveness or maturity, but of different perspectives of the world and existence. This history of the philosophy of religion tells us what the study of the philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university.

Diversity and inclusion are a mantra of contemporary American universities. Frequently, though, this mantra fails to bring real change to college campuses, instead remaining as just rhetoric. By definition, the philosophy of religion investigates the act of religion. As I discussed in my earlier blog post “What is philosophy of religion?,” however, the widely accepted definitions of both “philosophy” and “religion” can be contested. In the East Asian traditions, these two terms might be understood in a very different way from how they are understood within the familiar Judeo-Christian religions. Hegel’s marginalization and depreciation of Asian religions clearly shows the limitations of the West-centered worldview. Likewise, studying the history of the philosophy of religion itself can help the modern university to challenge closed perspectives regarding diversity and inclusion by introducing different ways of viewing religions.

This leads to the second point that I would like to make. Modern society has been characterized as a secular one in which the meaning of religion and religious practice have gradually diminished. In his book A Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor asked, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” In the religious worldview, he tells us, “Human agents are embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine.” This holistic vision has gradually disintegrated in the modern world, as the standards for values have become secularized and individuals have developed a human-centered worldview as an alternative to the traditional theocentric world—the world in which the transcendental divine figure functions as a source of meaning and values in human life.

The religious world is a world in which people experience “a boundless awe” and “boundless wonders,” according to German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937). In a secular age, however, the awe- and wonder-generating source of our existence is no longer an essential part of our meaning and value systems. This, however, does not mean that we humans are no longer looking for value and meaning in our existence. How do we resolve the conundrum of escaping the religion-centered world, but still keeping ourselves in the mode of constantly feeling boundless awe and looking for the source of our meaning-giving activities and values? I believe that the philosophy of religion offers this to modern universities and their students by reminding them of the values and meanings that used to play important roles in our lives.

The philosophy of religion is a mindful—not just rational—investigation of the act of religion. It reminds us that our modern busy lives constantly distract us from thinking about the real meaning and values of our existence, even if we’re constantly trying to define the fundamentals of being through the milieu of socializing and connecting with others through social media. It offers moments to dig up the aspirations that are buried in our hearts, forgotten because of the daily hustle and bustle of our routines.

In our time, the term “religion” frequently has a negative connotation, in part because it is now understood in the context of institutionalized religions in which the authority, conventions, and rituals mar, rather than encourage, religious practice. However, the drawbacks of institutionalized religion do not erase the need for religion in the human mind. In lieu of institutional religion, religiosity or spirituality should begin to represent the “content” of religious practice, freed from the power play performed by religious institutions.

Kim Iryŏp, a Korean Buddhist nun/thinker, repeatedly emphasized the importance of religious education and religious practice, which she considered as enabling us to realize the fundamental meaning of existence. For Iryŏp, religion did not constitute obedience to a creator God or transcendental figure’s moral commandments. The existential strain in her understanding of religion demanded a separation of religion from moral implications: “Religious education is not about making us do good things. It is about helping us recover the mind that knows how to erase the discriminating judgment of good and evil—that is, the original mind of human beings—so that we can live not by following fixed rules, but by relating to the contexts in which we find ourselves.” For Iryŏp, secular education helps in attaining knowledge, but religious education could lead an individual to “attain awakening.” Being awake meant having “established the foundation of your thought” and not being “manipulated by your circumstances. You form clear decisions about your projects and make consistent efforts to accomplish them.” Religion, for Iryŏp, was a way to discover the basis of human existence, and religious education was what enables us to be fully in charge of ourselves. We can replace Iryŏp’s term “religious education” with the philosophy of religion and then go back to the point that I made at the beginning of this essay regarding diversity and inclusion. Authoritarian morality divides us into a good people and bad ones instead of aiding us in understanding each other. The philosophy of religion helps us look deeper than the surficial differences and hierarchical moral judgments that accompany a superficial look at our lives, a feat that is truly needed in the modern university.